It's light years from being a great game, but there's still something at the heart of No Man's Sky that speaks to the would-be explorer in all of us.
Published 19 August 2016 By Alex
No Man's Sky feels like it's been in the public consciousness for an eternity. In reality, it's closer to two-and-a-half years. All that build-up, all those weighty expectations, all of it began a little over half a US Presidential term ago at, of all places, the 2013 VGX Awards. Remember that show? If you do, it's probably because of what a disaster it was. But somewhere in there, tucked amid Joel McHale's active disdain for his hosting role and a bunch of ill-fitting Odd Future interview segments, maybe you remember Sean Murray of Hello Games unveiling his studio's latest creation, an impossibly huge-sounding space exploration game called No Man's Sky. Maybe you remember him nervously shifting as Geoff Keighley grilled him on the details of the game, looking down at his shoes as he described his vision of the ultimate "You see that mountain? You can go there" game, a procedurally generated universe of over 18 quintillion planets, all explorable from pole to pole. Maybe you remember even McHale himself, so detached and sarcastic throughout the show, letting out a brief eruption of genuine-feeling incredulity at the scope of what Murray's small team was trying to accomplish.
That incredulity has built steadily in parallel to a ludicrous amount of hype in the years since. For every person pinning their dreams of "endless gameplay" in "the last game they'll ever play," there was another demanding to know "what you do" in the game, and casting doubts as to whether Hello Games could ever pull off what it was purporting to do. Normally as a critic I wouldn't care to mention the hype cycle any big game inevitably goes through, but that cycle is inextricably linked to No Man's Sky. So much of what has been wished upon it has informed the discourse around it. Though Hello Games' own messaging has been at best, muddled, and at worst, ultimately misleading--especially around the possibility of players finding each other in this huge universe--that messaging has also been largely drowned out by people projecting their own hopes and fears onto the game.
It's as difficult to imagine a game that met the loftiest of those expectations as it is easy to understand why people would be disappointed with the game that No Man's Sky ultimately turned out to be. At its core, No Man's Sky is a game of exploration. You jump from star system to star system in your own little ship, landing on planets and moons and leaving your personal stamp on them as you go. The constant feeling of discovery is its greatest asset, but that discovery often feels in service of far less interesting ends. Both its fleeting attempts at narrative, and economically-driven gameplay systems, are fairly terrible at respecting the player's time. And yet they're seemingly what are meant to propel the player forward in No Man's Sky. Resource gathering, crafting, inventory management, robot fighting, ship combat, it's all in there, wrapped in a veneer of Greater Purpose that points you toward the center of the galaxy, a place you are meant to go because the developers felt the game needed a place everyone is supposed to go. But taken individually, none of these things are particularly compelling. They're all skeletons of systems that basically work together, but not completely. Even the procedural generation, the heart of this whole crazy endeavor, starts showing its seams long before you even start thinking about those hypothetical "hundreds of hours" of gameplay.
And yet. And yet.
Calling something "greater than the sum of its parts" is beyond cliche, but no other description feels more apt for No Man's Sky. There's a rhythm to playing it that's unusually transfixing. Even as I came to realize the limitations of every single thing the game does, the sense of wonder never quite left me. Thirty-five hours in, I still found great joy in setting foot on a new planet for the first time, looking around, and drinking in whatever environment surrounded me. It's hard to explain why that feeling is still here, even after I've discovered every flaw in the game's design, every crack in its facade. There are so many different ways that No Man's Sky fails to deliver that I should be disappointed. I should be done with this game. And yet. And yet.
The longest I ever spent on a single planet was the planet @bombsfall (named, as many of my planets were, for someone I follow on Twitter, because I'm just not that creative a person). This was early in my time in the Euclid Galaxy, before I had fully grasped the pace of life in this universe. @bombsfall was, at the time, by far the liveliest planet I'd encountered, filled with useful elements, significant volumes of weird wildlife, and a great number of Vy'keen bases and installations. By this point in my journey, I hadn't stopped to think much about where I was going. I was still enamored with the mere concept of landing on a planet, and trying to plant my flag in as many locations as I could. According to the clock, I was there for 15 sols, which roughly translated to six hours in real world time. At no point did anything on @bombsfall reveal itself to be wildly different from any planet I'd been to up to this point, nor any I've visited since. Apart from its abundance of everything, it was just another planet.
But I stayed here. I mined heridium and plutonium in huge quantities. I scanned every bit of life I could find, every vaguely different-looking rock formation that happened to appear in my field of view. I found galloping horse-looking things with heads and necks like screaming plants, skittering lizards with bug-eyes that seemed at once alarmed and sleepy. I discovered something like 30 different waypoints before I finally decided to move on. There was no good reason to stay as long as I did, but nonetheless I stayed, checking off boxes, giving identity to any question mark that scanned in walkable distance. Fifteen sols of obsessive documentation and resource gathering, all for what? Why did I stay here, and not other, frankly prettier places I eventually found? What kept my boots on this particular ground?
By this point in my journey through No Man's Sky, I hadn't fully grasped the notion of how the game metes out its objectives. I was treating No Man's Sky like a typical open-world game, reluctant to jettison myself from an active planet because I wanted to check off as many objectives as I could before moving on. If you play No Man's Sky like this over the long term, you should get out of your first solar system by Christmas, if you're lucky.
Every planet in No Man's Sky has the same basic things, just in vastly different quantities. A barren moon still has limited mineable resources and locations to visit, but not very many of them. The best planets are teeming with native flora and fauna, along with numerous bases and monoliths established by the game's other intelligent races, the warrior Vy'keen, the trade-focused Gek, and the Daft Punk-looking machine race called the Korvax Convergence. The variety of what you find in these bases is not very wide. Sometimes you'll find an observatory that will point you toward an ancient ruin or distress call from a wrecked ship. Sometimes it was an abandoned station that had been overtaken by betentacled alien unpleasantness, in which I would usually find some new tech to attach to my multitool or exosuit. Sometimes I'd find a trading depot manned by a solitary member of one of the previously mentioned races.
In a normal open-world game, the repetition of these familiar icons on a map would be lessened, because you're aiming toward a set endpoint. They only have to be copied and pasted a few times throughout the game because they exist alongside larger story missions that are the primary focus for the player. These are distractions from the point, not the point unto themselves. In No Man's Sky, everything outside of the game's single story thread is a side objective, copied and pasted hundreds of quintillions of times across the universe. No matter how long you spend in No Man's Sky, you will never see them all, but not long after you begin No Man's Sky, you will have seen them all before.
That repetition will likely be critically damaging to a lot of people's enjoyment, especially given how threadbare the core survival game mechanics are. Resources are mined, systems are recharged and repaired, money is gained, and so on. In between, you manage and build out your inventory so you can store more of everything. Crashed ships (or ones purchased from other aliens) give you more cargo space than the beater you begin the game with, but they're expensive, so you keep grinding. Exosuit upgrades are found on every space station, and frequently scattered across planets and moons, but they increase in cost with each purchase, so you keep grinding. This process repeats itself forever. As the game exists at the time of this writing, there is nothing to do but look for new versions of the same things, take whatever's useful for you, and move onto the next planet, all in the hopes of creating a bigger bag in which to store whatever.
Once you start earning upgrades for your equipment, tasks like mining start feeling less like a tedious chore. There's no worse modern game design convention than "this task sucks until you upgrade to make it suck less," and that's a convention No Man's Sky is oddly invested in, sadly.
But there are appealing aspects too. Scanning environments on a newly discovered planet doesn't get old, or at least it hasn't yet for me. Yes, you'll see the same assets recombined in various ways as you play, but even apart from the financial benefits--you earn additional money by uploading your discoveries to a galactic database--it's a wonderful sensation to know you're the first person to see this particular thing, whatever that thing happens to be. And even though engaging with the wildlife on any given planet rarely amounts to much--feeding the more docile creatures sometimes nets you additional resources they scout for you, or occasionally excrete for you--I still like doing it. I like befriending these Frankensteined animals, no matter how grievously repellant they might be. By no means will this grind work for every player; I often wondered not if, but when it would ever stop working for me. But for the subset of players who, like me, succumb to No Man's Sky's perpetual thrum of galactic busywork, it does the job.
The closest I ever came to actual death in No Man's Sky was on the planet @MOUNTENNUI. A mountainous planet with minimal wildlife, @MOUNTENNUI was a rock I almost bolted from moments after touching down. It was only because I noticed an unfamiliar object near my landing point that I stayed. Vortex Cubes. I'd never seen these on a planet before. As far as I knew, they only existed as rare, valuable items you could buy on the open trading market. Here they were, not in great quantities, but enough that it was worth my while to snag a few. The one thing I hadn't counted on was the sentinels.
The sentinels on this planet were aggressive. Any attempt to take resources would result in a couple of them coming at me guns blazing. They were especially protective of these rare cubes, which sat on pedestals like ancient idols, begging to be stolen, if only so that a giant boulder could finally be unleashed upon the thief. Stealing the cubes alerted the sentinels to my presence. At this point, my multitool was pretty strong, so I could take out the first wave without much hassle. Even the second alert tier, the dog-looking machines with hyperaccurate laser fire, usually died after a single grenade launch. Here though, I first encountered the next tier, a giant AT-ST-looking monster that seemed dead set on wiping me from this universe entirely. The second he showed up, my shields were blasted away in seconds. I bolted for my ship, jumped in the cockpit with barely any health left, and flew to the stars, thinking I'd escaped. Suddenly, alarms sounded. Sentinel ships were coming out of hyperspace. I fought a few off, but they just kept coming. I figured I was doomed.
Then I turned my ship toward the nearest space station, hit the pulse drive, and got away. They didn't chase me. I was fine.
The worst parts of No Man's Sky are the ones that most closely hew to the idea of what a traditional video game is supposed to have. Take the aforementioned sentinels. These robotic creatures exist on every world. Though they vary in temperament, the idea is that they police the universe. Huge chunks of the other races' history is wrapped up in fighting them or researching their omnipresent existence. Why they're here isn't an interesting mystery, especially since they only seem to exist to give players something to fight. Even the most aggressive wildlife isn't much of a challenge, so here are some robots that get larger and nastier depending on how much chaos you cause. Here are your antagonists, because video games are supposed to have those.
Fighting them is always a nuisance, but never tense or fun. They're not strong or smart enough to put up a meaningful fight once you've implemented enough weapon upgrades. They're just there to start shit because nothing else in the game, save for the occasional space pirate you encounter off-planet, does. Engaging them (and the pirates) in space is no better. Ship combat goes from frustrating to depressingly simple as soon as you acquire your first beam weapon. Instead of having to carefully lead targets with your shot (and mostly miss in the process), you just blast a few phaser beams out and the autotargeting does the rest of the work. Video games are theoretically supposed to make fighting the antagonists they present you with an enjoyable experience, something No Man's Sky never finds a way to pull off.
The same can be said for the game's attempts at story. Finding monoliths and knowledge stones offers up some interesting backstory for the histories of the different races you encounter, as well as individual word translations for the various alien languages, but the actual story direction for the player, which involves following a path laid out for you by an ancient force called Atlas, is just an absolute waste. The notion here is that players might want something to guide them early in the game. Given the scope of the universe, having something to latch onto besides a vague longing toward getting to the center of the galaxy makes sense. But what's on offer isn't much of a story at all. It's a series of stations to visit that spoon feed you a bit of philosophical baby food before offering you a special orb and sending you back on your way. If you collect ten of those orbs, your final station visit will give you the option to create a new star, which is presented with as little fanfare as you could imagine.
The good news is that you don't have to follow this path. You have the option at the very beginning of the game to go that route, or just freely explore. You should freely explore, because for all the things that No Man's Sky misses the mark on, that freedom of exploration is the one thing it gets very, very right.
I never felt more alone than I did on the planet @UtilityLimb. At this stage of my journey, I'd never been to a harsher place. Impossibly massive cliffs jutted up all around, offering sheer drops into small pools of putridly hot water. Huge storms that almost completely killed visibility beyond a few feet in front of me rolled in regularly, kicking up purple dust clouds that made the environment look like an early Nintendo 64 game. The only life I ever found were a few out-of-place-looking cow creatures, and a small number of pulsating shrimp things that swam around those tiny pools of water. Of the precious few stations I found, all were empty of life. No one existed on this bizarre, horrible place.
And I have never had more fun in No Man's Sky than I did on this garbage planet. Due to some pre-day-one-patch glitch, my ship's engines had broken. I needed to farm a fair amount of iron in order to make the necessary repairs, and while iron was certainly around, it was gonna take a while to get it. Knowing that I would end up wiping my save when the patch dropped, I decided this is where I was going to make my stand. I was going to die on this rock, but before then, I wanted to find someone else alive. I had to know if I was truly, utterly alone.
I spent a long time wandering @UtilityLimb's hostile terrain. Maybe every 10 minutes or so, I'd find another question mark, but it never materialized into an interaction. Just monoliths and abandoned facilities, with knowledge stones dotting the path between them. I learned the Gek words for "origin," "fluid," and "kneel" but I never found another sapient presence.
After a couple of hours, I allowed myself one last question mark. I hoofed it in the icon's direction, but it took forever. The cliffs were unforgiving, and my jetpack hadn't been suitably upgraded by this point. You could see where the procedural generation had borked up in places, as giant, yet unusually slender outcroppings of rock, which looked like the result of anything but nature, appeared sometimes completely free of gravity, floating peculiarly above the world. Storms kept hitting, but finally, as the last one broke, I saw the outline of my final destination. It was another monolith.
I interacted with it, and it told me that amid its pulsing energies, a small birdlike creature had appeared. It looked dead, with its neck clearly broken. The monolith had reanimated it for my benefit, as some kind of test. It screamed in agony. The monolith gave me a choice: Let it be, or put it out of its misery. I thought for a second, and chose to kill it. Mercy seemed altogether absent on this world, so I felt it my duty to inject a little into it. I was rewarded with a new upgrade for my exosuit.
As I turned away, the computer sounded the alert of yet another incoming storm. As purple dust clouds filled the space, I poked the last few knowledge stones that surrounded me. I learned the Gek words for "fire," "stop," and "awake." Those were the last words that went through my head as I, and my original save, died.
No Man's Sky does an incredible job of making you feel insignificant. Maybe this sounds like a weird thing to compliment a game for. After all, games are often obsessed with making you feel like the most significant person in their individual worlds. No Man's Sky is the opposite of a power fantasy. You're just a person scraping by, taking what you need, selling the rest, and working to survive in a universe that's thoroughly uninvested in your survival.
It's lonely as hell, and I think that's wonderful. I mean, thinking about space and its distressing infiniteness tends to have that effect on people, but this feels different from what other space games tend to offer. This isn't grand space opera; you're not building a galactic empire. You're in this universe all by yourself. You know full well that you will never see the whole of it. The only way to leave any kind of mark is through discovery. Putting your stamp on the star systems, planets, individual waypoints, and even names of various species you encounter, is the closest anyone will ever get to knowing where your journey took you. It's the galactic equivalent of carving "Brooks Was Here" into the ceiling of a boarding house.
And it's kind of a beautiful, even humbling thing. This is what ultimately kept me going in No Man's Sky. When I'd finished the Atlas path, I almost called it quits in disgust. But when I eventually convinced myself to go back, I decided to return to the pace of play I'd been holding to before I decided to rush through the last few Atlas stations. I made it a point to go to every planet in a star system, and even if I opted not to stay long, maintaining that need to explore brought me back to how I felt when I first began the game. The sense of wonder returned as I continued my solitary journey through space. Knowing that I was totally on my own, and that there was nothing left to guide me, reminded me why I was ever enjoying the game in the first place.
I don't expect that sense of wonder will hold for everyone. There's a good chance that your immersion in No Man's Sky will be broken far sooner than mine. You may find yourself deeply bored of the game's loop once you've seen all the varieties of animal and plant and rock that the game recycles across its universe. You may tire of the frequent bugs and crashes that, while sure to be patched down the road, nonetheless distract quite a bit from the current version of the game. Maybe you've already decided not to jump into No Man's Sky at all because, in numerous ways, it's never quite manages to live up to its original promise, imagined or otherwise.
And yet, there's something underneath all those blemishes, something intangible beyond its rickety framework and lackluster individual pieces, that I couldn't ignore. The thing is, almost entirely in spite of what No Man's Sky is, I really like playing it. It calms me in a way that few games ever manage to. Knowing that I'll never see the entirety of it, knowing that my path through this overwhelmingly massive, deeply flawed universe will be uniquely my own, is enough to keep me on that path. I like being here, lonesome in my insignificant corner of the galaxy, doing the things I need to do to survive.
This is the vision of the game I hope Hello Games leans into as they work to improve No Man's Sky. Yes, deeper systems, better draw distance, better frame rate, greater variety of, well, everything, all of this is important. Maybe that theoretical possibility of interaction between players should actually make its way into the game, too. But I don't want any of that to come at the expense of that magnificent solitude that No Man's Sky already does so well. That's why I remain here, wrestling with all the ways in which this game's universe is fundamentally broken.
Because this broken universe gives me a small taste of something that our own broken universe can't. I will never leave Earth. I will almost assuredly never go to a place no one has ever been, because nearly every place on Earth has already been discovered. Though the promise of interstellar travel, or at least travel to other places in our little solar system, has never seemed more tantalizingly close, I know that I will never be one of those people to set foot on those unfamiliar places. That opportunity has passed me and a great deal of my generation by. If and when space travel becomes a normal aspect of human life, I'll be an old man, if I'm even alive at all.
No Man's Sky makes me feel like I can go somewhere no one else has ever been, and no one else may ever be again. And I love it for that. Maybe you will too.